Congresswoman urged to consider park status for Mount St. Helens

Forest Service says it’s doing all it can to promote volcano

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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A large cross-section of regional voices last week urged Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, to take a harder look at a years-old question: Should Mount St. Helens receive national park status?

The renewed push comes two years after a citizen committee recommended keeping the local landmark — now a national volcanic monument — under the management of the U.S. Forest Service. But that conclusion came with a long list of improvements the group wanted to see happen at the mountain. It gave the forest service a sort of trial period to get things moving.

Last week, a letter to the congresswoman — signed by 37 elected officials, business owners and other surrounding community members — argued it’s time to re-evaluate the arrangement.

“Progress, at best, I think has been spotty on those recommendations,” said Sean Smith, policy director for the Seattle-based National Parks Conservation Association that helped coordinate the effort.

Urging a study

The letter didn’t explicitly call for an immediate shift to national park status for Mount St. Helens. Rather, it asked Herrera Beutler to support a “special resource study” to further explore the idea — even as it appeared to favor that outcome.

“Our mountain, our communities, and

state deserve the benefits that will come with national park designation,” the letter read. “We encourage you to support legislation calling for the investigation of a Mount St. Helens national park.”

Designating the volcano as a national park would shift its management from the Forest Service to the National Park Service. Supporters say that would also provide more stable funding and prestige that comes from the elevated status, thereby boosting visitor numbers and the economic benefit that those visitors bring.

The Forest Service has taken the citizen committee’s recommendations to heart since 2009, said Ken Sandusky, public affairs specialist for the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, which encompasses the mountain. He said forest officials have used the report as their blueprint for enhancing the visitor experience at the mountain best known for its catastrophic 1980 eruption.

Sandusky pointed to recent investments that include dozens of new interpretative panels and signs around the monument, plus recent trail and road work. Crews also finished upgrades to the Johnston Ridge Observatory this year, premiered new films and built an amphitheater that will open to visitors next year.

“That’s all part of the response to the congressional committee,” Sandusky said. “There is a renewed focus on funding from the Forest Service to Mount St. Helens.”

The work was boosted partially by new resources that include federal stimulus dollars, Sandusky said. But the monument has historically struggled to find sound financial footing. The still-shuttered Coldwater Visitor Center closed down in 2007 due to budget woes.

Worthy of status

The National Parks Conservation Association pushed for national park designation in 2009. Smith reiterated that position this time around, and said Mount St. Helens’ worthiness of that status isn’t a question for residents who live near it.

“Congress has typically reserved that name for the most iconic landscapes,” Smith said. “To a person, everyone agrees that Mount St. Helens is on par.”

Herrera Beutler hasn’t formally responded to last week’s letter. But the congresswoman appreciates the “dedication and goodwill” of the people who signed it, spokesman Casey Bowman said in an email. Once the trial period of continued Forest Service management ends, Herrera Beutler will assess what action to take, Bowman said.

The Forest Service has reached out to the public on what the best way forward is for the monument, and continues to do so, Sandusky said. Ultimately the goal remains the same, he said: making the volcano a destination and a boon to the surrounding area.

“We’re making our best effort,” Sandusky said. “Really our main focus here is to support local communities. That’s really what we want to accomplish through this.”

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro;eric.florip@columbian.com.